District Courts: Another New Tool For An Age-Old Problem?BloombergQuintOpinion
Improving Court Efficiency
In a speech on July 14, 2018, months before his swearing in as the Chief Justice of India, then-Justice Ranjan Gogoi spoke of the need of the judiciary to improve the efficiency on a day-to-day basis, and emphasised the need to adopt tools for that purpose. Since becoming the Chief Justice of India, he has led efforts to achieve this, by through the adoption of technological platforms as a part of the ongoing e-Courts project.
Across the country, district courts are set to adopt the ‘District Court Monitoring System’, which has been established by order of the Chief Justice of India with the purpose of monitoring daily performance of judges.
While performance of individual judges can be monitored through the National Judicial Data Grid, which has been available since 2013, it does not provide information on their daily activities.
According to the note, judges must enter information on “total cases fixed, cases fixed for evidence, witnesses examined in civil and criminal cases, arguments heard / part heard and disposal of miscellaneous applications as well as main cases being contested or uncontested.”
The Principal District and Sessions Judge in each district are required to rate the performance of every judicial officer in the district based on this information. The judicial officers will undergo both qualitative and quantitative assessments of their performance.
The quantitative assessment involves grading the judicial officers’ performance as being ‘Excellent’, ‘Very Good’, ‘Good’, ‘Satisfactory’, or ‘Poor’.
Each judge’s grade is determined by the number of witnesses examined, the number of miscellaneous applications disposed of, and the number of contested cases disposed of, per day.
The specific numbers required to qualify for each grade differ for subordinate courts and appellate courts; for example, subordinate court judges must examine 8 to 10 witnesses to be classified as ‘Excellent’ whereas appellate court judges require 4 to 6.
As for the qualitative assessment, the note states that judges receive one of the same five grades described earlier, but it does not describe any methodology or criteria for this assessment. It merely acknowledges that such an assessment is necessary given that a deeper and more time-consuming examination of a witness cannot be equated with a much quicker examination.
District Court Monitoring System: Concerns
The motivation and features of this system raise many questions. The main concerns that emerge are the following:
1. The DCMS will be implemented by the High Courts, as the administration of the subordinate courts falls under their jurisdiction, even though the system’s adoption was ordered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. There is therefore a question regarding the appropriate authority to oversee the implementation of the system and to then utilise it to reduce judicial delay.
2. It may not be helpful to approach the problem of delays using performance ratings without first addressing the systemic problems that are the most significant causes of backlog. As an example, a time and motion study by DAKSH shows that non-substantive hearings, which are primarily administrative and procedural in nature, consume between 40 and 50 per cent of judges’ time.
Delays could be reduced considerably if any administrative and procedural tasks could be automated or performed by non-judicial staff, giving judges more time for substantive hearings.
To chieve this, the judiciary requires better systems of case flow management and realignment of roles and responsibilities between judicial officers and court staff.
Such steps are more likely to help in reducing delays than using rating systems. Therefore, it is potentially misguided to place the responsibility for ensuring timely disposal on individual judges without first addressing the systemic causes of delays.
3. The impact of the DCMS depends on how the ratings data would be used. They may be used at the institutional level as a monitoring tool. The information extracted from the DCMS could then be used to enact systemic reforms.
However, they could also be used as a basis to apply incentives to individual judges, through some form of reward and punishment. This is problematic both for the reasons described in point 2 above, and because it could potentially skew judges’ incentives towards faster disposal rather than ensuring that matters receive sufficient attention.
4. The inclusion of the qualitative assessment also raises concerns as their objectivity may be compromised.
The criteria may not be reliable enough to ensure that the assessment is consistent, and the ratings may be vulnerable to the subjective biases of each PDJ.
5. The link between quantitative benchmarks for each criterion and the performance categories such as ‘Excellent’, ‘Poor’, or ‘Good’ is unclear. The benchmarks need to be compared to actual statistics of judge performance, in order to understand whether they have been set fairly given current capabilities.
In spite of these concerns, it is encouraging that the judiciary is making country-wide efforts to focus on improving the efficiency of the district courts, where the bulk of litigation takes place in India. Some of the questions about the DCMS may be answered as more information becomes public.
Once this happens, it will be interesting to see how the qualitative assessment is to be conducted, and whether it addresses or compensates for the potential inadequacies of attempting to quantify performance based on the chosen criteria.
It follows from this that the available information about the DCMS provides a suitable starting point for discussion on the contentions that need to be dealt with in the process of reforming the district courts.
The quantitative and qualitative impact of the DCMS on district court performance also remains to be seen. It would be interesting to compare the courts’ performance before and after the system’s adoption and to assess whether it helps speed up disposal, and whether this comes at a cost.
Siddharth Mandrekar Rao is a research associate at Daksh India. This article was originally published on the Daksh India website.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.